My name is David, and I’m an evangelical who likes ‘Rev’.
I realise that puts me at odds with some of my fellow evangelicals, and to a degree I understand their concerns. Yet like my fellow evangelical and friend Steve Holmes I think ‘Rev’ needs first to be viewed within the frame of the Classic British sitcom – disparate, quirky folk apparently thrown together by circumstance and somewhat ‘trapped’ within a particular setting or institution. Think seaside hotel, prison, Home Guard, rag and bone business and here, of course, a struggling East End church. The final episode of the current series offered a profound portrait of vocation – of the way it can seem at once limiting and irresistible. But in that very sense it was skilfully dovetailed to its genre. The problem is, as evangelicals we can be too prone to read art denotatively, for its headline ‘message’, without regard to the genre in inhabits.
Denotatively, I wouldn’t choose to go to Adam Smallbone’s church if it existed. Indeed, if I were an Archdeacon I might recommend its closure, or replanting. But denotatively I wouldn’t want to stay in Fawlty Towers, rely on Mr Mainwairing’s Home Guard, or attend a gig done by Jack Dee’s hapless comedian in the underrated ‘Lead Balloon’, either. Yet through their mishaps, failures and desire to do better, we do kind of root for the deeply flawed, tragi-comic protagonists of these shows, and grow fond of the oddballs who surround them. This elevates such series from glorified gag-fests to something more dramatic – more epic even. Indeed, compared to any other religiously-themed sitcom I’ve seen, and interpreted within the semi-tragic parameters of sitcom at its best, ‘Rev’ deserves to be recognised as a classic.
But even as ‘Rev’ works with the conventions of great sitcom, it also manages to transcend them – not thanks to any headline message of ‘religious optimism’, but because it understands that true godly hope climbs a steep and narrow path, holds on in anguished prayer, and takes up a cross. Think Moses, David and Peter, and their struggles with God’s call. Think of how the church started behind a locked door, when frightened, beleaguered and angry disciples began to see that there was life beyond death – when they recognised the risen Christ in their midst.
This goes to Martin Luther’s distinction between theologia gloriae and theologia crucis. Not for nothing did the latest series of ‘Rev’ culminate in Easter. We had to go through the wrenching devastation of Adam’s personal Good Friday in Episode 5 to get to his resurrection experience in Episode 6. It would have been specious if there had been no Episode 5, if we had bypassed the cross and skipped straight to the resolution of Easter Day. Despite our avowed crucicentrism, it does seem at times as if we evangelicals have become somewhat squeamish about the darker side of faith and discipleship – about doubt, weakness, loss and lament. Obviously we cannot dwell on and revel in these things – there is good news to proclaim, a world to transform, and Christ is risen. Granted, this broader missional confidence is downplayed more than it might have been in ‘Rev’. Granted, when church planting was depicted in an earlier series, it was lampooned. As an evangelical I passionately want churches to grow, and obviously ‘church’ in this sense means far more than the sort of unsustainable building that Adam was scrabbling to keep open.
But Calvary mocks any attempt to confuse God’s mission with mere worldly success, and in walking out of his interview for a City management consultancy when catching sight of his condemned church through a high-rise window, Adam exemplified that powerfully. And let’s be clear: Adam didn’t go back to St Saviour’s to rescue a church building; he went back to celebrate God’s salvation with the frightened, beleaguered and angry crew God had given him to pastor, and significantly he celebrated the resurrection with them outside rather than inside the church, to reinforce that they were more important than the structure behind them. And tellingly, even when they did break back into the sanctuary, it was for a baptism – for a sacramental reminder that sin, death and burial are part of the Christian story as well as new life.
So there was a message in ‘Rev’. But it was a message best discerned not so much through the lens of Church Growth Theory as through the lens of a classic British sitcom genre which finds humour in our thwarted ambitions, vanity and pride, yet which nonetheless shows affection and even compassion for those caught up in such things. Applied as deftly as they were here to the life of a deeply flawed yet prayerful minister and his deeply flawed yet loveable congregation, those tragi-comic conventions unexpectedly facilitated the telling of a much richer, more authentic and more challenging story – the story of a God whose grace is so free and extravagant that it can heal even the most lost of vocations, and even the most hopeless of churches.